“Today, two-thirds of Southern Baptists are members of churches they do not attend,” Mark Dever said at the sixth annual 9Marks conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS).
“I fear that most of our members are perfectly able to attend Sundays … in the church where they are members … but they just don’t. Now those people should join where they attend, and if they are able and do not attend, then they should not be allowed to be a member of a Christian church.”
More than 850 attendees gathered Sept. 26-27 to hear from conference speakers Daniel Akin, SEBTS president; Thabiti Anyabwile, assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church; Alistair Begg, senior pastor at Parkside Church near Cleveland, Ohio; Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill; Ligon Duncan, chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss.; and Jonathan Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks.
SEBTS photo by Maria Estes
Panelists – from left: Jonathan Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks; Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ligon Duncan, chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss.; Alistair Begg, senior pastor at Parkside Church near Cleveland, Ohio; Thabiti Anyabwile, assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church; and Mark Dever, Capitol Hill’s senior pastor – share their views on church membership as part of the sixth 9Marks conference Sept. 26-27.
“I would argue that the very issue of church membership is ultimately … a Trinitarian issue,” Akin said to attendees. “And that our community is a natural outgrowth of the community that exists perfectly in the Triune God.”
Drawing from Ephesians 3, Akin spoke on the benefits and blessings of being part of a community of believers.
Quoting John Piper, Akin said, “The issue of unity for Paul [in Ephesians 3] is created by the mission of the church to those who were ‘far off,’ the Gentiles and the nations – ‘far off’ spiritually and ‘far off’ culturally and sometimes geographically.
“In other words, the uniqueness of Christ – the fact that there is only one Christ and only one God and only one faith – is the foundation for mission outside of the church and the foundation of unity inside the church.”
Anyabwile sees two kinds of proponents for church membership – those who believe the Bible explicitly mandates it and those who believe it is implied. He then cautioned defenders of church membership to stop arguing that it isn’t explicitly in the Bible, and that the idea of it is. He said, “The phrase is there, I want to contend, in the Bible if we have the right idea of ‘church’ in mind.”
Teaching from 1 Corinthians 12, Anyabwile said when Paul uses the phrase “body” he means “church.” Paul is not talking about the country club, Rotary Club or civic guilds of his day, said Anyabwile. “He is thinking about Jesus. This is a deeply Christological idea. He has in mind the body of Christ. He thinks of the human body as a pattern for Christ’s body, and he thinks of the individual Christian as a member or part, or appendage, or organ in Christ’s body,” he said.
Disobeying the instruction of Hebrews 10:25, Dever said, doesn’t inspire confidence in a non-attenders ongoing repentance and faith. He said that a “member’s” regularly tolerated non-attendance brings up questions related to church leadership, expectations of new members, discipline, evangelism, conversion and the gospel.
“How do you regain what is not understood?” asked Dever. “And how do you make meaningful something you don’t believe in?”
These questions are a “challenge in evangelicalism in general, not just Baptist life or Presbyterian life,” Duncan said. “In the 20th century in most Protestant churches, there was a lower view of the significance of membership in the local church than in the 19th century. … I think everywhere where there is a resurgence of robust, biblical Christianity … alongside of that, there is going to be a corresponding sense of the importance of what it means to be a part of the local body.”
Leeman, in his session, said a judge neither makes the law nor makes someone guilty or innocent. Rather, a judge reads the law to understand it and then applies it to a particular case or individual. Based on Matthew 18, said Leeman, “Jesus has authorized your local assembly to stand in front of confessors to consider their confession and to make a judge-like pronouncement.”
He said churches have to return to the Lordship of Christ to understand what He authorizes for churches to do pertaining to membership.
Duncan agreed. “The local church is not something voluntary, [rather] it is something required for obedience to Christ,” he said.
All members of the church – whether pastors, deacons or congregation – have responsibilities, especially for the doctrinal integrity of the church, Akin said. “When Paul wrote Galatians, … he wrote it for the whole church, and he held the whole church accountable for losing the gospel or at least running the risk of losing the gospel,” he added.
Begg believes that church membership ought to be an ongoing endeavor of the local church.
He said, “In tenor and in tone … people can get the wrong end of the stick and not realize what a wonderful thing we are actually talking about – the safety and security and the privilege of engagement in one another’s lives” through church membership.
Next year’s 9Marks conference will be Sept. 25-26, 2015, and cover the topic of church discipline.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – To watch the 9Marks sessions, visit multimedia.sebts.edu.)